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Residents will voice herbicide concerns

Residents will voice herbicide concerns


December 8, 2002
Sentinel staff writer

Local activists on Tuesday plan to protest what they call a lack of
“backbone” by county leaders in banning herbicide use along local
state highways.
Supervisors are set to accept a staff report at their weekly meeting
on the fruits of their effort to curb herbicide spraying by the state
Department of Transportation. In April, supervisors asked Caltrans to
either stop spraying along state highways like Highways 1 and 17 that
run through the county or speed up its promise to reduce spraying by
80 percent by 2012.
The board also asked Caltrans to immediately stop using more
harmful “category II” pesticides and to set up a hotline that tells
residents where sprayings occur.
But to date only the hotline has been implemented. Caltrans says it
can’t eliminate or significantly reduce spraying because alternative
weed control methods such as mowing and organic herbicides
are too expensive.
The department also can’t stop using “Reward,” the category II
pesticide it uses locally, because it is the only thing that keeps
ground cover under control, district director Gregg Albright said in a
letter to supervisors.
But local environmentalists say those arguments don’t hold water and
that a simple hotline is not enough. They point to the stand taken in
1997 by Humboldt County supervisors, who forbid Caltrans from
spraying within county borders. While the department is not subject
to local ordinances, it gave into the county’s wishes after massive
public protests that included residents lying down in front of spraying
The city of Santa Cruz banned pesticide use last year. In response,
Caltrans nearly eliminated herbicide spraying within city limits and set
up a pilot program to test weed-control methods such as solid mats,
liquid soil sealers and organic mulches. There are currently two test
“The fact the supervisors are starting to cave into (Caltrans) is
totally inappropriate,” said David Blume, a local activist leading the
herbicide protest. “They should be protecting the citizens of the
county instead of a state department budget.”
Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt said while the board is concerned, it’s
done about all it can do.
“I would like to see herbicides and pesticides minimized as much as
possible and as quickly as possible, but we can’t control Caltrans,”
she said. “All we can do is ask. ... In the meantime, the county has at
least been successful in getting notification of where spraying will
occur. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Herbicide opponents say Caltrans uses chemicals that cause cancer
and birth defects. Runoff from herbicides kills toads, salamanders and
other water life in the creeks flowing into the Monterey Bay, they
“When you spray this stuff, more than 99 percent of it goes into the
environment, not onto the target plant,” Blume said. “It can drift for
miles before it settles on somebody’s home, car or lungs.”
Blume and others will present a petition Tuesday signed by more than
2,000 county residents opposing roadside spraying.
A Caltrans spokesman said the department is doing what it can to
meet its long-term 80 percent reduction goal. The department already
has decreased pesticide use by 50 percent since 1992, said Caltrans’
Colin Jones.
“We’re a real minor part of the overall spraying in the county. Our
amount is minuscule compared to other users,” he said.
In 2000, Caltrans sprayed 1,706 pounds of herbicide along county
highways, compared to 1,620,596 pounds of pesticides used
throughout the county as a whole, mainly by farmers.
The department will be able to expand use of alternative
weed-control methods if the city pilot project is successful, Colins
Local activists also plan to protest the county Public Works
Department’s spray policy for county roads Tuesday. Spraying
recently increased after a forced hiatus caused by equipment
A status report on county spraying will be presented to the board
Tuesday. In it, director Thomas Bolich said stopping herbicide use is
cost-prohibitive. Public Works uses a combination of herbicides and
mowing to control vegetation on 430 miles of county roads. It also
uses both methods to control flooding along the Pajaro River and
Salispuedes Creek.
Bolich estimates it would cost the county an additional $794,000
annually to eliminate herbicides on roads, and $253,000 to stop use
along water ways.
“It’s just so labor intensive it’s beyond what our budget could adapt
to,” he said.
County residents can find out where pesticide spraying is occurring
by calling the new hotline at 477-3937. The hotline gives alerts for
both county and state roads.
Contact Jeanene Harlick at jharlick (at)


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